Nellie was born in the farming village of Midleton a few miles from Queenstown (now Cobh) in Co Cork, in 1845. Her parents were Patrick and Fanny (nee Cronin) O’Kissane, a family name later anglicized to Cashman. A sister, Frances or young Fanny, was born a year or two later. The Cashman family was Catholic and poor, categories synonymous with the years of An Gorta Mór. Family fortunes declined further when Patrick either died or left his family around 1850. It was then mother Fanny decided to emigrate with her daughters to America. They first settled in Boston where there were tens of thousands of Irish.
While working as bellhop in a prominent Boston hotel, she is said to have met and chatted with General Ulysses S. Grant, who urged her to go west. Nellie took Grant’s advice and used her accumulated savings to travel with her sister Fannie to San Francisco in 1869.
Fannie married and began raising a family within a year, while Nellie hired out as a cook in various Nevada mining camps, including Virginia City and Pioche. With her savings from these jobs, she opened the Miner’s Boarding House at Panaca Flat, Nevada in 1872.
Before long, Nellie joined a group of 200 Nevada miners headed to the Cassiar gold strike at Dease Lake in northern British Columbia. Here, too, she operated a boarding house for miners and gained notoriety for organizing a rescue caravan to a mining camp where a scurvy epidemic had broken out. Together with six men and pack animals loaded with 1,500 pounds of supplies, she completed the 77-day journey through as much as 10 feet of snow and arrived in time to nurse almost 100 sick miners back to health.
When the Cassiar strike played out, Nellie headed for the silver fields of Arizona. She arrived in Tucson in 1879, where she opened the Delmonico Restaurant, the first business in town owned by a woman. The Delmonico was successful despite (or perhaps because of) her habit of feeding and caring for hapless miners.
In 1880, Nellie sold the Delmonico and, following the silver rush in the San Pedro Valley, moved to the new silver boomtown of Tombstone, just after the arrival of the Earp brothers.
Once in Tombstone, she bought a boot and shoe store which she ran briefly before opening another restaurant, the Russ House. Named after the original in San Francisco, Nellie served 50-cent meals, advertising that “there are no cockroaches in my kitchen and the flour is clean.”
During her years in Tombstone, Nellie gained a reputation as an angel of mercy, and became a prominent and influential citizen. A lifelong, devout Catholic, Nellie convinced the owners of the Crystal Palace Saloon (one of whom was Wyatt Earp) to allow Sunday church services there until she had helped raise enough funds for construction of the Sacred Heart Church.
She was also active raising money for the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, the Miner’s Hospital and amateur theatricals staged in Tombstone. She was famous for taking up collections to help those who had been injured or fallen on hard times, especially miners. Always the pragmatist, Nellie found the members of Tombstone’s red light district sympathetic and charitable to her causes, and relied on their generosity to help others in need.
Nellie’s community services in Tombstone continued to expand. She served as an officer of her church to hear the impromptu confessions of two of the five men who were to be hanged for the Bisbee Massacre of December 1883. The following year, when a group of miners attempted to lynch mine owner E.B. Gage during a labor dispute, Nellie drove her buggy into the mob and rescued Gage, spiriting him away to Benson, Arizona.
After returning from an unsuccessful gold expedition to Baja, California, her widowed sister Fannie died of tuberculosis, leaving Nellie to raise her five children. Nellie sold the Russ House restaurant and spent the next years, children in tow, wandering the mining camps of Wyoming, Montana, and the New Mexico and Arizona territories. It is said that all five children became successful, productive citizens under her care.
In 1898, Nellie joined the Klondike gold rush to Canada’s Yukon Territory. She arrived in Dawson, the center of Klondike diggings, where she opened a restaurant, a mercantile outlet and a refuge for miners where she provided them with free cigars. During the seven years Nellie lived in Dawson, she became famous as one of the great figures of the Klondike gold rush. She was revered by miners and mine owners alike, and celebrated by the likes of Jack London, Joaquin Miller, Jack Crawford and Robert W. Service.
In 1898, Nellie headed even farther north and established mining operations in the Koyukuk wilderness, 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. It is said that in her 60s, she ran a dog sled team 750 miles across the frozen Arctic.
Nellie died on 4 January 1925 at the hospital in Victoria, BC, she had helped establish fifty-one years before. It was a great adventure for a wee girl who had left Ireland seventy-five years earlier with a widowed mother and sister to establish a new life in America.